A silver flash ripped the sky, a guttural humming breaking through the atmosphere. As it drew level with the horizon, the metallic comet almost blended with the deepening blue of the sky. Sound and sight united in a broad airplane wing bisected by two fuselages and whirring propellers. It was a P-38 Lightning, a new kind of machine. Leo Brindley saw it, and his world burst open.
Leo watched this dream come alive in the skies above California. His family had moved there, Joad-like, in the 1930s, fleeing Iowa farming for more reliable jobs in Lockheed’s Burbank airplane manufacturing center. While his father worked on some assembly line or another, making the prototypes of eventual World War II planes, Leo first set hopes on flying a P-38 – a silver wing of a contraption, shiningly fast. It would be a lodestar for him, but a fraught one.
Leo was born in fall 1921, his father a farmer who did not own a farm. He was a quiet kid who loved animals, listened to them and felt what they put into the air. His handwriting slanted forward in clipped sentences. An aquiline nose anchored his face, topped by an outcropping brow ridge that shadowed his searching eyes. When he smiled and really meant it, the grin broke wide across his cheeks and made his pupils visible again. His legs took up the most territory on his strong body.
The P-38 had given Leo a reason to look up from the fields he was raised in. The family eked out a living however they could, dependent on what could be grown. The next decade, they merged with a migration out of midwestern states plagued by the farming crisis. Crop prices had dropped and Leo’s father could not let his four children starve. So they went to California, a trip that would have taken days in a country yet without a highway system. Their destination was more than 1600 miles away.
While the agrarian crisis took hold in the rest of America, a muffled booming could be heard in California – flying machines being conceived, churned out of factories, and experimentally flown. Lockheed and other aviation firms vied to create planes that fit specs put out by the U.S. Army Air Corps (soon-to-be Air Force), part of a wave of aerial innovation. In the late 1930s, the U.S. may not have been directly part of the tremors of World War II, but a sort of earthquake rumbled in response to global unrest. The country was steadily building its military capabilities in the air.
The P-38 that captured Leo’s mind looked like no other airplane of the time, but it wasn’t quite the beautiful strip of quicksilver it presented. It was a calculated mirage. Though it combined speed, distance, and deadly fire, its twin tails were distinctive and easily prone to engine failures and fires. But before World War II had even started, the P-38 was born out of a mad hypothetical recipe calling for sustaining power and speed at long ranges. Its designer prescribed two engines for these specs, and even then could not fully reach the ideal measures. Even so, the result was a formidable flyer. It first cut the air in January 1937, and was formally introduced in 1940. The first models could reach speeds of 400 miles per hour, and had a range of 1150 miles.
By the time Leo graduated high school in late spring 1940, Germany had invaded Belgium, France, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. Churchill became Prime Minister of the U.K. Japanese fighters attacked Pearl Harbor in late 1941. The family had moved back to Iowa after the war started to work on a farm again. Leo joined the Army Air Corps on August 1, 1942. He spent a year at basic flying school in Oklahoma, then another year in advanced training in Texas before being stationed in California, where he was reunited with the P-38. In August 1944, he shipped out to the European theater. His Fighter Group base was in Lesina, Italy, on the eastern coast opposite Naples. He saw the world in patchwork grids and stretches of ocean and sky – the boy who had caught a quick flash in the sky halfway across the globe now commandeered that same power. He was riding the edge of possibility.
Six weeks into his combat experience, Leo had flown several missions in the P-38. On September 12, 1944, Leo flew a mission for his commanding officer, flying the man’s plane. He made it about 400 miles and was somewhere over Austria when the right engine caught fire. Heat and smoke billowed over the cockpit. He could no longer gain altitude to evade attack, so he decided to bail out. To do this with a straight shot to the ground, he would have to climb out of the cockpit and jump from a wing. Leo carefully climbed out into the cold air, but the unruly plane had started to dive. He struggled against the wind, trying not to get knocked unconscious. He returned to the cockpit to level the aircraft, then lumbered back out for a jumping place. He repeated this again as the P-38 gave into the dive. The ground was still thousands of feet below, but he would not be able to stop a spiral from barreling him towards his death. With the fire quickly eating away at the engine, Leo reeled through all his training, searching his mind for the answer that would save him. Back at the controls, he threw all his might into inverting the ship. With his plane upside down, and a wall of heat in pursuit, he jumped off the trailing edge of one wing. Once clear, he pulled the ripcord on his parachute, sailing into the unknown.
A squadron of Tuskegee Airmen flying cover in P-51s witnessed the bail out, and followed Leo down as he sailed earthward. This kept any tailing Germans at bay, until the P-51s grew low on fuel and had to return to base. Once an unarmed Leo and his parachute hit dirt, two German soldiers closed in and picked up their newest prisoner. They followed the Geneva Conventions and did not shoot him on sight. Instead, they took his leather jacket and walked him to the nearest town. Leo’s wardens ate, but refused him any food. One kept a gun pointed at him the whole meal.
Back across the ocean, Edna Brindley received news of her oldest son. It was a form letter relayed through the U.S. Department of War, upon which Leo was forced to scrawl his name, rank, and family contact information. The typed message was stark: “I have been taken prisoner of war in Germany. I am in good health. We will be transported from here to another camp within the next few days. Please don’t write until I give a new address. Kindest regards, Leo M. Brindley.” It was dated September 17, the day Leo officially became a prisoner of war. On her son’s 23rd birthday, Edna did not know if she would ever see or hear from him again. He was a Kriegsgefangener.
The next destination was more than 500 miles away. Leo was taken to Stalag Luft I in Barth, Germany, a town on the northeastern coast. It was a prison camp reserved for Allied airmen. The German military separated Air Corps officers from enlisted men and sent them to different camps run by the Luftwaffe. Most of these camps were evacuated before Russian advancement in February 1944, but Luft I persisted, and had even grown substantially since it opened in October 1942. In April 1944, the Red Cross reported the camp had 3463 inmates. By the time Leo was captured that year, there were almost 6000. He became part of a mass of captives by the sea, battered by wind and unsure of what came next.
Luft I was barbed wire-divided into compounds of barracks, each separated into several rooms housing at least 40 men each. Leo slept on a mattress filled with woodchips, in one of three bunks stacked on top of each other. The windows were kept closed from 9pm to 6am each night, and a suffocating darkness reigned. Leo had a long, cold winter ahead of him.
Leo most likely knew hunger as a child living in rural places hammered with economic depression. He definitely knew it as a prisoner of war. Red Cross supplies were cut off in November 1944, and daily caloric intake went from 1200-1800 calories per man to 800. Each day, the official rations were six potatoes, ⅕ of a loaf of bread, a small piece of meat, two vegetables (either cabbage, parsnips, or turnips), and thin barley soup. The reality was probably leaner. Leo once remarked that occasionally getting to eat potato peels was a “treat.”
For 231 days, Leo and the other men struggled through confinement. They organized themselves to survive, keeping the same ranks as when they were free, and selected leaders. Though Leo was an officer, he was a lower-ranking one. He was supposed to be flying through enemy skies, taking reconnaissance photos or escorting bomber groups. But his silver flash had grounded him in a prison camp. However lucky he was to be alive, the air was not his to maneuver through anymore. Winter came, and cold seeped into everyone’s bones. They shared their scant rations. The horizon became a dream again.
Leo was held at Luft I until May 1, 1945, when the Russian army marched in. But Russian and Allied relations had been steadily stewing, and the 8th Air Force began its “Operation Revival” airlift out of Barth. Over three days in mid-May, B-17s flew about 8500 prisoners of war back to Allied territory. Each plane had 25-30 former prisoners stuffed inside. The bomber crews took American airmen to Le Havre, France, northwest of Paris, to recuperate enough for the trip back to the U.S. Leo’s brother Earl served in the 8th Air Force, and flew to the camp on one of the rescue missions. He may have wondered if his brother would be among the prisoners, only knowing his captive status. But Leo had flown in one of the B-17s the day before Earl arrived, and the brothers missed each other. They would not see each other again until late summer, back in Iowa.
The last time Leo had crossed through the gates of Luft I, he was days away from having fallen out of the sky. When he finally walked back out of the prison camp’s gates, bonier, emptier, he looked up at that sky, at the light he was formerly rationed. B-17s roared out of the clouds to carry the prisoners to safety. Leo boarded a hollowed-out plane and returned to the air.
After his war, Leo’s eyes retreated further into his face. Shadows fell across the cheeks. He hated turnips forevermore. But that was the only ire he carried, as he stepped back into the quiet person he’d been before he roared along with a P-38’s twin engines. He’d lived a whole life in those fierce years, and strove to keep it during months of captivity and deprivation. But perhaps part of him hadn’t survived. His were once again interior skies.
Reunited with Earl in Atlantic, Iowa, Leo floated around a bit. What was anything to a couple of boys who had seen the world’s latest means of killing? They were walking anomalies. At one point, amidst odd jobs, the brothers tried to keep chickens, and built a sizable coop for their brood. Leo must have laughed at trying to build a bird prison. One day, it spontaneously exploded. I like to think he did it.